My experience with the horror-exclusive streaming service Shudder felt doomed from the beginning, far before the debacle that signing-up to Shudder was with a ‘suspicious transaction’ marked by my bank. I’d assumed that the platform was home to both up-and-coming creatives with more to offer than the opportunities being given to them and washed-up creatives whose single cult classic from the 1980s has stopped paying the mortgage. None of this is Shudder’s fault, obviously – I’m just petty like that.
Written and directed by William McGregor
What makes folk horror scary is how it shatters the illusion of continuity. Not narrative continuity but historical – the idea that the way things are now is how they’ve always been, and that this is the way it’ll be forever. When a police officer travels to rural Scotland he isn’t just scared by the prospect of being burnt alive by locals in a giant wicker effigy, he’s scared because his industrialised way of life seems strange and frivolous when faced by people still celebrating Neolithic druidic traditions.
Gwen is a historical folk horror set in rural Wales at the time of the Industrial Revolution. A rich quarry owner has eyes on Gwen’s family farm, the last one in the valley. After her mother falls ill, which Gwen believes to be demonic possession, the farm begins to experience dying crops and livestock. The Industrial Revolution, much like the arrival of the Romans and even the witch trials, represents a time when the communal beliefs and ways of life indigenous to the British Isles were torn away, power placed more and more in the hands of centralised ruling classes. There are ultimately no monsters or devils in Gwen, but the idea of continuity is still being destroyed. Perhaps its lifeblood is too heavily borrowed from The VVitch (2015), but an insistence on the material over the supernatural is what makes this a surprisingly clever slow-burn – more than I expected from Shudder.
The Wrath (2018)
Written by Park Jae-bum
Directed by Yoo Young-sun
Unlike Gwen, it’s initially hard to place The Wrath into context. My experience with Korean storytelling goes as far as the first episode of Squid Games (2021), and that cultural ravine is unavoidable. The image of a young woman branded with a swastika would definitely conjure up a different idea to a 14th century Korean than a 21st century European. Set in the Joseon, a Korean dynasty that lasted for 500 years, a young peasant woman marries a nobleman, looking to use her to defeat an evil spirit while his family wishes for a male heir – so perhaps it isn’t that unfamiliar after all.
For want of a better word, it’s fascinating to watch. The internal politicking is engaging and well-written, and (until the last thirty minutes) is relatively separate from the scares. The horror itself is often a strange procession of imagery and jump scares; but then the haunting and the drama begin to entwine, and the secrets and actions of this noble family begin to manifest in paranormal happenings. Exorcists vomit black goo, phantom heads appear in boiling pots – perhaps it’s a bit cheesy at points, with all the Dutch angles and musical stings (in part due to it being based on a 1980s movie), but the non-stop vicious retributions against its own characters means The Wrath definitely lives up to its title.
Written by Elza Kephart & Patricia Gomez
Directed by Elza Kephart
On the surface, Slaxx is exactly the type of movie I was expecting from Shudder. A tongue-in-cheek, low-budget and low-effort piece of schlock about a pair of murderous jeans. In reality, it may be one of the best modern horror films I’ve seen in a long time. Made from cotton picked by Indian child labourers, a pair of “Super Shaper” jeans from a ‘trendy and ethical’ clothing brand becomes sentient and homicidal. The workers of a company which claims to ‘respect the cultures of its employees’, to be ‘building a better tomorrow, today’, and calls workspaces ‘ecosystems’ suffer a violent reckoning as a result.
It’s consciously very silly, and not very subtle – the ragtag team of workers who would rather be anywhere else, the boss who speaks exclusively in empowering soundbites and business terminology, the atmosphere of a workplace cynically trying to be modern and diverse, the business which brands itself as socially-conscious. You’re not meant to take any of it seriously, just like how those businesses, in real life, shouldn’t be taken seriously. The movie heightens reality to such an extent that the murderous clothing possessed by a dead child labourer who loves Bollywood music hardly raises an eyebrow. Regardless, there’s just something satisfyingly taboo about it all – watching an entitled influencer with space buns get strangled to death on camera by a pair of walking jeans springs to mind. There’s satire of the fashion industry to make it more than a gore-filled romp, and the ending is quite harrowing, but Slaxx is a lot of fun anyway.
The Seed (2021)
Written and directed by Sam Walker
Modern media has a strange relationship with technology and digital culture. Even just the presence of smartphones onscreen is enough to make some people feel uncomfortable – and there’s probably a host of sociological and anthropological reasons why. But why not confront this by writing a horror movie in which a vapid social media influencer and her friends find a disgusting creature from outer space? That’s the route taken by Sam Walker for The Seed.
A long tradition in British horror, alien impregnation can be a symbol of anything from hedonism to corruption of the human body. In his first feature film, Walker attempts to strike a balance between discomfort and gore, tension and satire. Some elements come out better than others, and a British filmmaker trying to appeal to American audiences is worthy of nothing more than an eye-roll these days, all of which makes it consistently hard to understand what Walker’s trying to say with The Seed. Is it about female sexuality, or social media? The latter seems to be his interpretation, which means that going for notes of Eraserhead (1977) and The Thing (1982) seems strange in light of Videodrome’s (1983) existence. The film looks distinct, with unnaturally bright colours throughout, and there’s more than enough mystery and violence given to the concept. This was the only movie I’d heard of prior to buying Shudder, and at least it’s given me a director to keep an eye out for.
Mad God (2021)
Written and directed by Phil Tippett
Phil Tippett is a visual effects supervisor and stop-motion animator, as well as a director, whose work includes the original Star Wars trilogy and Jurassic Park (1993). Conceived over 30 years ago, Tippet has been working on-and-off to create Mad God, finally released through Shudder in 2021. During those 3 decades, Tippett became sullenly convinced that stop-motion was to be fully superseded by CGI, and only a year prior to release he suffered a mental breakdown and was admitted to hospital.
In light of all that, Mad God is many fascinating things. It’s a journey through a post-apocalyptic hellscape, with allusions to both the Old Testament and the Second World War, as well as a work of masterful stop-motion. Every shot of this ceaseless and cruel movie holds imagery meant to turn your stomach yet, with absolutely zero dialogue, it’s impossible to look away. During your time with Mad God, you’ll try to unpick the deeper meaning behind the cavalcades of misery and beauty. Is it about the insurmountable weight of history? A rumination on cyclical war, destruction, and nihilism? An exploration of the adage ‘we are our own gods’? All I know is that I think I forgot to blink whilst watching and the level of focus I found myself giving Mad God rewarded me with a headache.
There are always accusations that the art of today is lesser than the art of yesterday, that we’ve long since reached the height of creativity and are in some kind of artistic dark age, but it’s just a matter of looking in the right places. In recent months I’ve watched countless hours of bad TV and movies, either out of some misguided martyr syndrome or a hidden sense of masochism, and I’d started to convince myself that there was something wrong. The breadth and quality of Shudder’s original movies should be a wake-up call to anyone disillusioned with the never-ending slew of Marvel phases and Netflix Originals – open yourself up, and good things will appear.